Magazine article The American Prospect

The Subtle Force of Tom Perez: The Labor Secretary, a Son of Dominican Immigrants, Has Used His Power to Make Real Gains for Workers-So Successfully That He's Become a Vice Presidential Prospect

Magazine article The American Prospect

The Subtle Force of Tom Perez: The Labor Secretary, a Son of Dominican Immigrants, Has Used His Power to Make Real Gains for Workers-So Successfully That He's Become a Vice Presidential Prospect

Article excerpt

May was a good month for Tom Perez, though you won't hear it from him.

In mid-May, the United States labor secretary flew on Air Force Two with Vice President Joe Biden to Columbus, Ohio. There, at a downtown outlet of a socially conscious, all-natural ice cream chain, they announced the White House's bold new overtime rule, which Perez is widely credited for making as strong as possible. The rule will likely increase incomes for millions of workers; many have already cast it as the administration's biggest second-term domestic policy achievement.

The weekend before the overtime announcement, Perez met privately with the CEO of Verizon and the leaders of two unions, 40,000 of whose members were embroiled in an increasingly contentious strike--the largest and longest U.S. work stoppage in years--against the company. Perez convinced Verizon and the unions to go back to the table and restart negotiations. Less than two weeks later, Verizon and the unions announced that they had reached a contract--one that's been heralded as an unusually strong win for workers in a time when workers seldom win anything at all.

In his three years as President Barack Obama's second-term labor secretary, Perez has become one of the most prominent members of the president's cabinet and has worked his way into the White House inner circle. With the administration's ability to promote its domestic agenda--centered on policies to revive the middle class--limited almost entirely to the executive branch, Perez's department has arguably become the White House's most important asset.

"Everything is a workaround, just about," Perez told employees at the website Gawker last year. "I'm not waiting for a functional Congress to do my job. And the good news is, I have ample tools in my toolbox to do my job," he told The Washington Post. His mission, as the Post describes it, is to "shore up workers' rights with the regulatory equivalents of duct tape and string."

Perez has proven himself an able handyman, steering a dizzying array of labor rules and regulations through Washington's often-stymied bureaucracy despite constant political threats and general hostility coming from Republicans and the business lobby. Those include not only the overtime rule, but an expansion of federal labor protections to cover domestic workers; a long-shot crusade to establish new standards in the retirement-advising industry; an executive order to use the federal government's contracting process to create good jobs; and a stern guidance aimed at stopping rampant worker misclassification.

His ability to promulgate a clearinghouse of policy proposals that have been on union and labor advocate wish lists since as far back as the Carter administration has led some of his allies in the labor movement to call him the most important U.S. labor secretary since Frances Perkins, who, under Franklin Roosevelt, implemented the trailblazing federal labor laws of the 1930s that still make up much of our framework to this day.

"[Perkins] was the gold standard. If she is gold, [Perez] is certainly silver," says Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, a nonpartisan labor advocacy group that has worked closely with the DOL on policy issues. "He came in with a sense of opportunity and need and was really grounded in all the ways that workers had lost ground under both Republican and Democratic administrations. He took on some big issues that had languished and made sure he pushed them through."

Perez has Perkins's portrait right behind his desk--he's read her biography and has repeatedly called her his "North Star" during his tenure at the department. And the policies that he's helped implement and advocate for have built on her legacy--the first federal minimum wage, overtime laws, and bargaining rights for workers were enacted on her watch.

"I think even though his tenure has been fairly short, he'll end up in the pantheon of really excellent secretaries of labor," says Seth Harris, who was acting labor secretary before Perez took the reins. …

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